Talking Writing with Sarah Reees Brennan

Irish writer, Sarah Rees Brennan, and I spend a lot of time IMing each other. We talk about many, many different things—including the superiority of Ireland and Australia to all other nations1—but mostly about writing. Recently when I was unwell SRB cheered me up by telling me the story of two of her not-yet-written novels. It was better than chicken soup! As any of you who have read her novel, Demon’s Lexicon, or her blog know, SRB is a wonderful storyteller.

It was not the first time SRB had told me the complete detailed plot of an as-yet-unwritten novel but this time I started wondering about how she does that. When I write a novel I know very little before I start writing. I figure it out as I go. My method is the winging it method. SRB’s is outlining. (Thogh really it’s so much more than that.) Which are the two basic approaches to novel writing. I decided it might be fun to ask her about her methods. And it was.

JL: I am so amazed at how you can reel off a whole written novel like that.

SRB: Oh I like to tell stories.
 
JL: Though it bewilders me.
 
SRB: I think in past times I would have been a bard.
  
Sad about my singing voice tho.’
 
JL: I think you would have been too. (I have not heard your singing voice.)
  
I used to tell a tonne of stories as a kid. But I got out of the habit.

SRB: I think our natural storytelling gene kicks in early and then you know, as you say, we get into habits.
  
I used to think i could never write straight onto a computer.
 
JL: Ha. I’ve been doing that since I was fourteen. I don’t really know how to write with a pen anymore. I think with my fingers. All the words are in my ten typing fingers. (Yes, I even use my thumbs!)

SRB: Occasionally I still write on paper.
 
JL: I am shocked. But I have a bad relationship with paper. We hate each other. I’ve been known to get papercuts on my nose.
 
SRB: I guess this is because you were wee when you started to write only on the computer? Whereas I was . . . the lofty age of seventeen?
 
JL: It’s not so much the age of starting as the amount time spent writing that way.
  
I’ve been writing on computers for more than 20 years. You haven’t even been writing that way for ten.
 
SRB: That’s true. ‘Habit becomes second nature and a stronger nature than the first’ — Anthony Trollope speaking of alcoholism.

ALso now I have writer friends, the ability to tell the whole story is super helpful. I told Holly [Black] the story I told you in Mexico and she was like ‘VILLAINS, we must take your villains apart.’

 JL: She started making suggestions about an unwritten novel? And you were okay with that?I
  
I’d worry it would interfere with you figuring it out yourself. I don’t think people are allowed to stick oars in until the thing is written.

SRB: See, it helps me
  
As I also gleefully reject anything someone says that goes against stuff I have decided.
  
I say no to many suggestions. Though sometimes I am very wrong about that.

JL: Hmmmm. Whereas because I work stuff out on the page and have such nebulous ideas about the story before I start writing that talking about it with someone else will just destroy it.
  
Which is why I mostly don’t.
  
Or if I do I say, “Don’t make any suggestions! Just nod and smile!”
 
SRB: See, if I don’t know where I am going to end up I float on a sea of horror. HORROR.

Mostly what I have is a firm start and end, and islands in between and I make bridges between the islands by telling people or making a chapter plan!

JL: Whereas if I knew my story as well as you know yours before you start I would never write them. I can’t see the point. It’s done already. Hardly anything left to work out. Why bother?
 
SRB: Well, I want to see how it plays out, and what will change. ;)
  
Plus I want to write the scenes I already love so I can see them. I admit they are rarely as beautiful as I picture them being, which is sad.
 
JL: I think writing a novel is like having an adventure. Without a map. I love finding out what the novel is about as I write it. It’s one of the main reasons I write novels. If I knew what it was about before I started it wouldn’t be an adventure.
 
SRB: Well that is a good metaphor and one which I can relate to.
  
Whereas I like buying a travel guide and planning out some stuff and thinking to myself WOW that picture of a temple is beautiful when I get there I’ll have so much fun. I’ll do this and this and this. (Which is hilarious, as actually in real life travels, I am the least organised person ever, and get carted about by my friends from place to place going ‘Oooh’ in a vague way, usually in inappropriate clothing.)

JL: (I can imagine.)
  
But you don’t just have an outline. When you tell me the plots of your unwritten novels you describe whole scenes and dialogue. So it’s more than just knowing where you’ll go and when. It’s knowing exactly who you’ll meet and what you’ll do.

SRB: Well, I admit some of my dialogue is written on the fly and some of it i keep, and some i do not depending on whether it sticks in my head.
 
JL: Which is the other part of your method I find utterly alien: your memory!
  
That all of this stuff is in your head, not on paper. (Well, at least not until I make you tell me the plot via IM.)
 
SRB: I do have an exceptional memory for useless stuff which is what the stories are in my head.
 
JL: Novels are not useless!

SRB: But in my head, they are. I still do not believe I get to do STORIES for my living. Mostly they have been just something I harass my friends with. Endless yapping about stories in my head! About as useless as my remembering stuff like it is legal to shoot someone with a bow in Scotland for trespass.
 
JL: But you can’t shoot them with a bow for other reasons?
 
SRB: Not legally, alas.Then they arrest you for ‘murder.’

JL: Seems grossly unfair. What if the person you shot had interfered with your hamster?
  
But I digress.
  
Do you remember when you first start telling stories?
 
SRB: (We have no legal recourse to protect our hamsters. We have to move outside the law like Robin Hood.)

Well, in fact, in keeping with the theme of your novel, LIAR, I began my career as a storyteller by telling tremendous lies.
  
Crazy, elaborate lies.
  
I mean, I recall drawing a house, and having a small story about the house beneath it at the age of five and then informing my sailor grandpapa, a much muscled and tattooed man, of my many years of toil over this fine scholarly work. I remember the lying as my start, more than the house story
  
And you too did this lying thing did you not?

JL: The elaborate stories? Yes, indeed.
  
I would make up stories to entertain my younger sister, Niki. But there were also the outrageous lies I told to pretty much everyone, of which I was often the heroine. But I never wrote those down. I only wrote down the stories that I would make up for Niki.
  
The proper stories.

SRB: See, I find you writing down stuff for your sister very beautiful and fitting. It reminds me of the Brontes and Diana Wynne Jones who all did these things.
  
HOWEVER, my siblings are ingrates and did not let me participate in this flow of souls. They would never have in a fit read anything I wrote down for them. Happy though I would have been to do so!
  
My sister Genevieve however did like me to come ‘talk her to sleep,’ which may mean, I was so insanely boring she used me as a tonic. But I was ready to do it at all times and indeed to be fair to Genevieve she also read a couple of my books once I typed them and printed them out and bound them for her. And, indeed, is my only sibling to have read my published book.
 
JL: (It should be noted at this point that both SRB and me are the oldest sibling.) Oh, my sister never read any of it. I had to read it to her.

When she was little, I mean. Niki has read all my published books. And the unpublished ones, too, for that matter. She is most good sister.
 
SRB: (Why does anyone ever have brothers? Even among the Brontes, Bramwell was the bad seed.)
 
JL: (It is a mystery. Though I should not really express opinion as I do not have brothers.)

SRB: Putting stuff on paper does legitimise stuff in a way now
 
JL: I think Niki was pretty young when I stopped making up stories for her.
 
SRB: We understand as Homer would not have that REAL BOOKS are on paper.
 
JL: Yes! That’s probably why I shifted into purely writerly form for my stories.
 
SRB: And why we rush to do that when we have the storytelling urge.
 
Plus, once I write something I can forget about it.
 
JL: That might be why I am so bad at remembering stuff.
 
SRB: Think of those olden days bards who had to remember hundreds of stories.

JL: Literacy destroys memory. (I would like to claim that this is an original thought but I think Walter J. Ong would be cross with me.)
 
SRB: I COULD have done it, I think. Remembered all those stories. But good god the alternative is nice.
  
So now if a fan says ‘I loved that bit where’ sometimes my brain offers me up nothing! I venture a ‘good?’

JL: I could not have been a bard! Even as a small child my memory was dreadful.

Yes, people ask me detailed questions about my books all the time. I have not the faintest clue. I wrote them so long ago now. (Though for me even a week ago is outside the scope of my memory.)
 
SRB: I imagine that will happen to me. Should I ever be lucky enough to have five books published.

I like that we end up in the same places (the temples!) but one of us wants a map and plan and the other voyages to adventure!
  
JL: I have seven books! Two don’t count though as they’re non-fic. However, I don’t remember anything about them either when asked.

 SRB: (I feel people asking questions about non-fiction would be cruel and unusual.)
 
JL: (I get asked about the non-fic all the time. I remember nothing! It was more than a decade ago that I worked on those! I was a different person then. That was in another country and the wench is dead!)

So how did you start writing down your stories? And how did that not stop you from continuing to tell your stories?
 
SRB: Well, I was always aware that this was what you did. Wrote stories down. And also, I could spend happy days alone in my purple room writing. Whereas to tell stories to a person for days I would have had to drug them and tie them up, and as a deprived child, I had little access to chloroform.
 
JL: (Though you had a purple writing room. *Is jealous*)

Probably illegal. Like using a bow on hamster interferers.
 
SRB: There just isn’t a bardic culture anymore. Or a court where people all read Chaucer together, which in some ways makes me sad!
 
JL: We’re not as good at listening as we used to be.
 
SRB: Short attention spans, given the variety of amusements available.
 
JL: But I also think people aren’t as good at telling stories either.
  
There aren’t many people I would suffer to tell me their entire novel.
 
SRB: I blush, m’lady.

We do not have the memory-recall of the bards of yore. And, you know, the beautiful bits of writing—description and the like—we have to think about those. I couldn’t tell someone those bits.
 
JL: I am still wondering about your telling of novels. My zero drafts are very tender delicate creatures. I show very few people.

And basically only in a cheering squad capacity. They can cheer my first baby steps, not criticise the wobbliness and pigeon toes. (There’s nothing wrong with pigeon toes!)
  
My novels can’t bear the weight of criticism until I’ve figured out what they are. And that doesn’t happen until there’s a whole draft.
 
SRB: I tend to find criticism always helpful.
 
JL: Oh, criticism is essential.

SRB: Unless I disagree with it of course . . .
  
JL: But someone criticising a zero draft is kind of like someone criticising a souffle on the basis of a few of the ingredients laid out on a table, but not yet made into a, you know, souffle.

I can’t stand people weighing in before I know what it is I’m doing. Before I can see the souffle. Because then they’ll try and make it into a cheesecake or, I don’t know, an aardvark or something.
 
SRB: While I am kind of like, as I can already visualise the souffle I like your idea of adding cinnamon.
 
JL: I am, of course, now envisioning a cheese souffle so am horrified by the idea of adding cinnamon to it.

SRB: Well, I have never made a souffle so cinnamon may be inappropriate to all souffles
 
JL: (Would be fine for a chocolate one.)

How soon do you start telling someone a novel idea?
 
SRB: Hmmm. There is usually a space. I mean, I will tell people I have an IDEA and then I will ruminate for some time. Sometimes unconsciously.
 
JL: There’s a long time while the novel gestates when it can only be me who knows about it. Maybe the difference is your gestation happens in your head and mine on screen?
 
SRB: Maybe! That would make sense. I do start telling people bits of novels before I have it all worked out: beginnings, backstory.
  
I told a lot of my friends the backstory for Demon’s Lexicon before I had a book.
 
JL: Cause telling it out loud was part of your process of figuring it out?

SRB: Yeeeees. It is one way of fine-tuning, building the bridges between the islands. Very tiresome for my friends however . . .
 
JL: Not for some of them. I know plenty of writers who like to stick their oars into other people’s books. I love it!

SRB: I remember being very surprised when Holly was like TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BOOK!
  
I was a baby publishing intern at the time. She was a Big Deal Writer Lady.

I was very pleased though: usually I had to coerce people. TALK LOUDLY OVER THE SOUND OF THEIR PROTESTS.
 
JL: Lucky you have such a penetrating voice. :-)
 
SRB: Possibly this is how I developed it . . .
 
JL: Holly really loves telling novels. She and Cassie Clare too.
 
SRB: This is how we all work.
 
JL: I had never come across that method before I met you three. I admit I was appalled at first.
 
SRB: So us in a pool in Mexico plotting novels in detail really works Plus we can fill in each other’s steps. If I have a gap and cannot proceed along the way. Holly or Cassie can fill it in for me and from there my ideas can snowball
 
JL: The first time I saw (heard) Holly & Cassie doing that I was shocked and appalled. But now I enjoy watching them at it. I had to let go of my fear of spoilers. And I learned not to breathe a word of what I was working on them lest they start interfering with it.

I’m already permanently spoiled for Scott’s books. Now yours and Holly’s and Cassie’s are also on that list.
 
SRB: Sometimes my process is too chaotic for them. I scream out something that seems insane to them. Then ten minutes later we reach a brainstorming point where my insane scream makes sense.
 
JL: I think what appalled me is that from my viewpoint you’re all sharing something that has always been intensely private for me. I do all of that stuff on my own.

SRB: I guess since it ends up public it seems right to start it with friends.
 
JL: Well, that’s the part you can’t control—when it’s published. So I like as much control as possible before then.
 
SRB: on the other hand, while I do not mind people showing me their babies. I would be very discomposed if they had sex in front of me.
 
JL: Ha! Interesting way of putting it.
  
YET YOU HAVE SEX IN FRONT OF CASSIE & HOLLY ALL THE TIME!
 
SRB: I FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEM? I GUESS!
 
JL: EWWWW!!!!!

SRB: Wow, now my own rash metaphor has transformed me, Holly and Cassandra into immoral orgiastic maeneads.
 
JL: You said it, not me.
 
SRB: Whereas you are the decent lady. (Sorry, Holly and Cassie!)
 
JL: Well except that you tell me your novel plots all the time. Sometimes I even beg you to. (I get Diana [Peterfreund] to tell me hers, too.)
 
SRB: So you are a decent lady with a peephole. Or I am the maenad who sometimes has orgies on your lawn?

JL
: I look but don’t touch. (I fear we have taken this too far.)
  
Do you like talking on the phone? (Not in a sexy way!)
 
SRB: Hmmm, not that much.
 
JL: I would rather IM than talk on the phone.
 
SRB: I mean, I am perfectly happy to do it
 
JL: Holly & Cassie are phone people and they don’t like IMing.
 
SRB: I have never IM’d with Holly, it is true
 
JL: IM is my fave form of communication. Other than face to face.

I had a theory linking preferring to talk on the phone to telling stories rather than writing them first. But you have blown it by preferring IM.

*shakes fist at SRB*

SRB: Well, there is the fact I always live pretty far away from people. I like most forms of communication to a degree.
  
(Curse my own metaphor, now I am the sluttiest of all!)

JL: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a slut.
 
SRB: Naturally not! But I could wish others would join me in my scandalous preferences.

JL: Don’t look at me! I is good, sweet, innocent writer.
 

  1. Just kidding. []

Hair Stories Redux

Thank you so much for all the wonderful, moving, scary, funny stories about hair.

I wanted to highlight this comment from Wonders of Maybe because it underlines how hair and fashion and politics and identity (self and imposed from the outside) co-exist:

Hmm — I’m multiracial (Black/Native American/White) and very, very light-skinned with extremely thick, curly hair. I’m talking spirals on “good” days and fluffy frizz on “bad” days! When I was young I wanted to straighten my hair because of how much I got hassled but once I turned 12, I was intent upon my hair staying natural. With such light skin, I feel it’s an honest indicator of what I am and who I am since I so often am mistaken for being Latino or Italian or Jewish or “something.”

Have you all heard of the “pencil test”? I learned about it as a child and it was, apparently, used in apartheid South Africa. If a pencil was stuck in your hair and it fell out, you could be counted as white (or coloured, if you were darker skinned). If it didn’t fall through, if the pencil simply stayed right in your hair, well, you were coloured or black. As a youngster, I was obsessed with learning about the various tests governments, leagues and clubs had through out history to determine someone’s background based on their hair. Interesting hobby, kid!

So for me, taking care of my natural hair is part a matter of respecting my history, as much as it is part of trying to look nice.

I remember my friend, the wonderful South African writer, Yvette Christianse, telling me about the pencil test. Like everything about Apartheid it was hard for me to get comprehend. A person’s race was reclassified, they were made to move, to lose their jobs—sometimes their lives—because of how a pencil sat in their hair.

Of course, as Susan, points out people are still being discriminated against because of their hair. Though, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s really only hair we’re talking about. How often in the US do racist commentators go after a black person’s hair and then claim they’re not being racist because they’re just talking about hair? Answer: too often.

The other thing Wonders of Maybe touches on is the “good” hair versus the “bad” hair debate. Frizz seems to be a key indication of badness. And as someone with straight hair, I can attest that sometimes the short, new, flyaway hair sticking up everywhere causes me despair. Lay flat, damn you.

So, why do we hate frizz? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with frizz. I think we’re taught to see it as “bad” hair. I think years and years of ads and movies and tv shows full of women with “controllable” hair has shaped how we see hair and what we expect of it. It’s even worse now when the vast majority of hair product ads are photoshopped into shiny, unfrizzy, unmoving or moving-in-a-really-weird-way, impossible-to-achieve hair.

About ten years ago, an acquaintance with very tight curls left the house without doing anything to her hair as an experiment. It was a ball of frizzy fuzz haloing her head. It looked amazing. I wish I had photos to show you how great it looked. Many people commented. Most were very positive, but she abandoned the experiment because she couldn’t handle everyone staring at her and everyone commenting. Bad enough, she said, when it was in its usual state of curliness.

Her chief pleasure in straightening her hair is that, other than people who know her, it’s the only time her hair is what she thinks of as “neutral.” People don’t comment, people don’t ask to touch her hair. She isn’t seen through the lens of her hair in quite the same way.

To bring this back to writing,1 I think what goes wrong in many books is that writers give their characters traits to distinguish them, such as curly hair, without thinking about how that would shape who the character is and their experience of the world. Not to mention how long they spend doing their hair. So, you know, don’t do that.

Thanks again for all your responses.

  1. I’ve had a few complaints that I’m not devoting January to answering questions about writng like I did last year. []

What Novel I Wrote Next

Searching for something else entirely, I stumbled across this old post from March 2007 where I asked my faithful readers to help me choose what to write next. I decided it would be fun to do an update. Fun for me, anyways.1

First on the list of possibilities is this one:

The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.

Sound familiar? Why, yes, it’s the book I wrote next: Liar which published in September this year. As it happens it involved no outlining at all. But I was right it was hard. Much harder than I knew at the time. It also generated more excitement than I anticipated.

The other now completed item on the list was this one:

Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!

The story was “Thinner than Water”, which was published in 2008 in Love is Hell. You can find a bit more about the story here. Even if I do say so myself it is an actual good story. I’m proud of it. But it was many years work and I think I’ll be sticking to novels from here on out.

I don’t know why the 1930s book isn’t on that list. I was already thinking about writing it in October 2006. Though the specifics didn’t come together until a fortuitous conversation with Cassie Clare in 2007. (Thank you, Cassie!)

The other idea on that list I’ve made a substantial start on is this one:

Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight years old) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.

I have, in fact, recently resumed work on it. Though as I am at work on many other things that does not mean the lodger novel will be finished any time soon.

Actually none of the other things I’m working on is included on that list. Mostly because I hadn’t thought of them way back then. Which just goes to show you that ideas really are a dime a dozen. Why, I just got a new one yesterday that I’m valiantly struggling against given that I already have four novels on the go. Five would be too many.

It was lovely looking at that list from almost two years ago and realising that in the intervening time I’d written two of them. Novels take ages and for me short stories take even longer. It will be many years before I write all those books. If, indeed, I write them at all. Most likely I’ll forgot about them and move on to other shinier ideas.

Because it’s not about the ideas, it’s about what you do with them. My barely sketched out idea of Liar from early 2007 does not invoke the completed book. There’s no mention of murder, no sense of what Micah is like, and no hint of why she lies. The book you write is never a perfect match with the imaginary book that was in your head before you began.

And now I must go and do some of that writing thing. Hmm, lodger novel? 1930s? Or that shiny new idea from yesterday . . . ?

  1. Hey, it’s the holidays no one’s reading this right now. []

Music Listened to a Lot While Writing Liar

Micah, the first person narrator of Liar, is very explicit about music not being her thing:

I hate music. It hurts my ears, my brain. Even the membranes in my nose. Any music. All music. I can’t distinguish between hip hop and hillbilly ramblings, between symphonies and traffic noise. All of it hurts.

So it’s a bit weird given that I listened to so much music while writing Liar. I know that she would hate very single one of these, but they were essential for me to get in the right state to be able to write Micah’s voice. I needed short cuts to sadness, anger and confusion. Hence the following songs proving to be just the ticket:


Shakira “La Pared”

An obsessive love song which includes lyrics like “Sabes que sin ti/Ya yo no soy” “You know that without you/I’m not me”. Perfect.


Billie Holiday “God Bless the Child”

I’ve always thought this was the most ironically biting song of all time. Angry, sad, brilliant. Kind of like Micah.

Suzanne Vega “Blood Makes Noise”

Self-explanatory really.


Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Original broadcast from the Albert Hall in London September 15 2001. Leonard Slatkin conducts the BBC Orchestra.)

Quite possibly the saddest piece of music of all time. If I was feeling too cheerful to write Micah I played this. Instant woe.


Danger Mouse & Jay-Z & The Beatles “99 Problems”

I just love this mash up. Micah would hate it. I mean more than she already hates most music. I cannot explain why it helped writing the book so much, but it did.

NaNo Tip No. 30: Rewriting

This is it the very last tip of NaNoWriMo 2009! At the end of this day you will be done! Woohoo!

Of course, you’re not really done. Not even if you managed to finish a whole novel in one month. Though if you did, congrats! I’ve never managed that. My hat is off to you. As it is to everyone who took part this month no matter how many words you wrote or how close you got to completion.

But what to do with your finished zero draft? How do you turn it into a first draft? Or better yet a finished draft?

Well that, my friends, requires a great deal of rewriting. Lucky for you I have written the essential guide to rewriting. Which, even though it is now almost two years old still contains much of my accumulated wisdom on rewriting. Here is a tiny preview:

There are two basic kinds of rewriting: structural and sentence level. Most beginner writers get caught up in sentence level changes. They go over their manuscripts deleting and switching words around (what’s called line editing in the biz). They do this before they’ve learned how to fix the structure. The result is lots of shifting around of deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.

The rest is here. I hope you find it useful.

But whatever you do take at least a week off between drafts. Your brain deserves a break.

NaNo Tip No. 28: Take Care of Yourself

It’s my second last NaNoWriMo post! Wow, that went fast. You’ve all been at it for 28 days now.1 Which leads me to suspect that some of you may be feeling quite sore about now.

Writing, like any job that involves spending hours in front of a computer, has a high injury rate. Almost every pro writer I know has some kind of neck/back/wrist problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injury are very common.

At the end of almost every first draft deadline, when I’ve been writing every day for weeks and weeks on end, and my writing days have stretched out from four hours to twelve or longer, my upper back and/or neck packs it in. I then have to get emergency work so that I can, you know, move my neck.

Once I recognised this pattern,2 I made a whole bunch of changes to stop it happening again. If you’re serious about writing, the time to start with good habits is now, before you become a crippled wreck unable to sign books for your fans.

Here are the changes I made:

  • I changed my work set up. No more writing slumped on the couch. All ergonomic all the time for me!
  • I started exercising more. I now work out at the gym with a trainer3 a minimum of three times a week. I also try to fit in a long walk at the end of each writing day. And lindy hop when possible.
  • I increased the number of breaks I took. I tried one of those programmes that beeps at you every thirty minutes but it kept beeping just as I was nailing a scene or right when I’d finally gotten into the flow of things that I came to loathe the bloody smiling beepy monster and harboured fantasies of ripping its throat out. So I switched to drinking even more water which ensures frequent loo breaks.
  • I take a few minutes to stretch my back, neck, wrists and arms every time I get up from the computer.
  • I get a weekly massage. It sounds indulgent but truly it’s maintenance. If I’m being massaged weekly as the deadline approaches my body doesn’t pack it in, which works out cheaper than getting all that work when my body is broken.

I have not been perfect at implementing my system. While on tour this year there were no massages, no exercise and I spent a lot of time slumped over my computer in hotels and airports, which led to a recurrence of my neck/upper back injury, which led to emergency cupping:

cuppedback

Not pretty, is it?

You’ve been warned!

Good luck with your last few days.

And don’t forget to check out Scott’s tips. His last one is tomorrow.

  1. Unless you haven’t started today’s writing. []
  2. And when I say “I” I mean Scott. []
  3. Why with a trainer? Cause I find gyms unspeakably boring and I last about ten minutes in them by myself. But three years ago I started working out with a wonderful trainer who has made going to the gym fun. I’m fitter and happier. There are much cheaper ways to stay fit. Like running. Which tragically I cannot do because of various injuries. Have I ever mentioned my sports curse? *Heh hem.* I digress. If you have not already I’m sure you’ll find a method of staying fit that works for you. []

NaNo Tips No. 26: Giving Thanks

Only four more days of NaNoWriMo to go, and I’m noticing that a lot of people are beating up on themselves. They haven’t met their deadlines. They haven’t got enough words. Their words aren’t good enough. The muse is missing! Etc, etc.

Welcome to the wonderful world of being a writer.

At every level, writers beat up on themselves. If they’re not published yet, then that’s their source of grief. If they are published, then they aren’t selling enough, well reviewed enough, or haven’t won enough awards. If they are award-winning bestsellers, their publisher makes them tour all the time. And because they’re touring all the time, they’re too tired and sick to write.

Oh, the woe that it is to be a writer. Even the successful ones are miserable.

So let us do the Pollyanna thing. Here am I, an Australian in the United States of America, enjoying the local official Polyanna day (known as Thanksgiving). Now this is a day with a very troubled history, but one cool aspect of Thanksgiving is that it’s a national day given over to talking about what you’re thankful for.

Those of you doing NaNoWriMo may discover that you’re thankful that you have the time, resources and support to spend the month of November trying to write a novel. There are plenty of people without any of those things.

So you may not have 44,000 words. You may only have 5,000. But that’s still 5,000 more than you had on the first of November. And to quote one of my favorite songs, “From little things, big things grow.”

I did not finish the first novel I attempted to write. Or the second, or the third, or the . . . I’ve lost count how many.

But eventually I finished a novel. It remains unpublished, but I’m thankful that I wrote it, because it’s the foundation that all my later novels are built upon.

So what if you don’t get a novel finished in November? There are plenty more months where this one came from. You’ve proven that you can write, given a little bit of structure and a hundred thousand people writing along with you. Soon you can have a go at writing on your own.

Be thankful for the work you have done this month. Clutch it to your chest.

NaNo Tip No. 24: Writing While White

Lately many white writers have been asking me about writing characters who aren’t white. Quite a few are doing NaNoWriMo, so I decided I’d put my responses into the NaNo tips.

I’ve been asked the following questions: Why should I have non-white characters in my books? How do I write about non-white people if I’ve never known any? Should I write about non-white people at all?

I’ve already addressed some of these questions a number of times. I’m not sure if any of my responses are adequate. These are complicated questions that I wrestle with myself.

And, of course, I feel very weird being put in the position of giving people permission to write. No one can do that for you. Least of all me.

In a few cases, I’ve been tempted to tell these well-meaning askers, “No, don’t put non-white characters in your fiction.” Reviews like this one by the fabulous Doret Canton definitely make me feel that there are white writers for whom writing outside their social circle is a bad idea.

As a general rule you should never write about anything you are ignorant about. If you want to write about an African-American character living in NYC, say, and you don’t know any, and you’ve never been to NYC, odds are you’re going to do a bad job. Which is why Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk is so good. He’s drawing on his lived experiences.

Now, you may point out (if you know me at all well) that I have repeatedly written about things about which I know practically nothing. Mathematics in the Magic or Madness trilogy, as well as luge in How To Ditch Your Fairy and biology in Liar. I did a lot of research to be able to write about them but I was shockingly ignorant starting out.1

So what’s the difference?

Mathematics, luge, and biology are not people. They can’t be hurt.

What we all have to remember when we write about people—any people—is that the risks of reinforcing stereotypes and thus hurting people is very high. So the onus is on us to do the very best job we can. We also have to remember that even when we do a wonderful job, even if we are a member of the group we’re representing, there are still people who will be offended.

There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. For example, there’s been much discussion on this blog about representations of women and the way women characters are held to different standards. I recently saw a discussion of Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful debut novel Demon’s Lexicon where Mae was referred to by a commenter as a “whore,” which is, aside from everything else, factually incorrect. The much more sexually active character (also not a whore), Nick, was discussed in approving terms.

None of us want to perpetuate those attitudes about female sexuality but even when we’re writing strong2 3D female characters, like Mae, readers are still calling them whores. Which is to say it’s really hard bucking centuries of negative representations of women and particularly of their sexuality.

None of the white writers asking me these questions wants to hurt anyone or reproduce racist stereotypes. They’re asking because they’re concerned and they want to do the right thing and because they recognise that most of the novels being published in the USA are about white characters. Outside of bookstores like Hue-Man the shelves of most bookstores in the USA are groaning with books about white people.

However, when I ask them what they mean about not knowing any non-white people it usually turns out not to be true. Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as “white”3 and forget that they’re Hispanic or of Japanese or Korean or Indian ancestry. I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

Writing should challenge the way you perceive the world. You should look harder and longer than you ever have before. Notice that the sky at night is not black, that eyes are not one uniform colour and that car engines don’t “growl”. I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

  1. Sadly once the books are written all that I gleaned in order to write them drops out of my head. []
  2. By “strong” I do not mean “arsekicking”. See Diana Peterfreund’s comment for further explanation. []
  3. Which is a whole other problem. []

NaNo Tip No. 22: Read Bad Books

Yesterday Scott talked about the importance of rereading books you love to figure out how the writer made you react the way you did. He advised rereading good books. Today I’m going to recommend reading and examining bad books.

This may sound like strange advice but often you learn more from examining a broken thing than something that’s in perfect working order. It’s actually easier to do this than it is to figure out how a good book achieves its effects. This is because it’s much harder to get sucked into the narrative of a book that’s broken. Every time I reread Pride and Prejudice I have to work crazy hard to look closely at the writing and avoid getting absorbed with Lizzy Bennet’s story all over again.

The next time you’re reading a book that you hate, stop and figure out why. What is it that the book is doing to annoy you? How is it broken? Are the characters thin and unbelievable? What in the writing makes you feel that way about them? Why do you think the plot makes no sense? What would you have to do to fix it? Look carefully at the text and identify what’s not working and then—and this is the important part—figure out how it could be made to work.

Now all you have to do is to avoid doing any of those things in your own writing. And remember all your excellent solutions to those plot snarls and lame characters, because one day you may need them to fix your own broken novel.

Easy peasy!

NaNo Tip No. 20: Don’t Wait for the Muse to Strike

It’s day twenty and I’ve seen some talk on NaNoNoWriMo blogs of muses showing up or, more often, not. I’m sure for some of you muses are a very useful metaphor for your creative process. However, sitting on your arse waiting for them to show up? Frequently not a good approach to actual writing.

“Oh noes! My muse is not here! I cannot write! Instead I will play Left 4 Dead 2 until muse shows up.”

This method will leave you with kickarse zombie killing skills but will not be much chop when it comes to, you know, writing.

Now, I’m not a very spiritual or mystical person, so feel free to ignore me. But I can tell you that even my most mystical woo-woo writer friends do not sit around waiting for their muse to show up. They write when they’re feeling inspired. They write when they’re not. Depending on deadlines, they write when it’s a gorgeous day and they’d much rather be cycling, they write when they’re supposed to be at a movie with friends, they write when they haven’t had enough sleep, they write when they’re ill. They write because it is their job to do so.

One of the cool things about NaNoWriMo is that it gives you a taste of what it’s like to be a professional writer. Of what it’s like to write day after day after day even when you don’t want to. What some of you may discover is that it’s not for you. That you truly cannot write without inspiration. That deadlines don’t galvanise you, they freeze you. In which case the life of a full-time pro writer is not for you.

That does not mean you can’t still write. At all. There are many published writers, who write in their spare time, for whom it is not their main source of income. The majority of published writers are like that. There are even more unpublished writers for whom the writing is the thing and getting published is not the goal. Many writers of fanfic have zero desire to turn pro.

Which leads me to revise my position: it’s perfectly fine to wait for your muse to show up if writing is not your job. But if you depend upon writing then you have to learn to make it a habit, a way of life, and not depend on totally unreliable muses and inspiration and the like.

Don’t forget to check out Scott’s NaNo writing tips.

NaNo Tip No. 18: Breaking with Stereotypes

Yesterday’s post led to Kilks suggesting that I base a NaNo tip on it, which I am now doing.

One of the biggest flaws in beginner writing is a reliance on stereotypes and cliches which produces characters who never come to life because they lack verisimilitude. The female protag faints and is afraid of spiders. The male one is brave and strong. Or vice versa. And that’s all there is to them. They’re thinner than paper.

What do I mean by a stereotype? Let’s look at one that frequently shows up in US teen movies and books: the dumb jock.

Now am I saying that you can’t write about a dumb jock? No, absolutely not. I’m saying that if you’re writing a character who has been written a million times before and been in a million movies you have to work hard to make them transcend being merely “the dumb jock.” You have to turn them into a fully realised character.

My favourite dumb jock is D.J. Schwenk, the protag of Catherine Gilbert Murdock‘s Dairy Queen trilogy. D.J. breaks the stereotype in several ways. For starters she’s a girl and she’s playing American football on a boy’s team. But there’s more to it than that. She’s dumb in that she’s not very good at school work. She doesn’t get why people read books for pleasure. And she’s not particularly smart about her own feelings. Or rather she’s slow at figuring them out. She’s slow at things that aren’t physical. But she gets there eventually. All too often we equate fast thinking with smart thinking and D.J. helps get you to rethink that. Maybe she’s considered “dumb” because our definition of smart isn’t very flexible?

When a character is making you rethink what it means to be “dumb” or “smart” you know you’re in the hands of a wonderful writer.

How does Murdock do it?

It’s all in the details. The tell-tale observations that are so particular to her character. The syntax and rhythm of D.J.’s speech (the books are in first person) sounds like no one but D.J. Schwenk. Here’s the opening of the third book in the trilogy, Front and Center:

Here are ten words I never thought I’d be saying . . . Well, okay, sure. I say these words all the time. It’s not like school and good and to are the kind of words you can avoid even if you wanted to. It’s just that I’ve never said them in this particular order. Not that I can remember, anyway. But what do you know, there they were inside my head, like a little thing you’d say to get yourself psyched: It sure feels good to be going back to school.

It feels like D.J. is talking directly to us. We get to see her thought patterns, which are halting, even clumsy, she’s not comfortable with words, which is something we usually associate with being smart.

It’s very intimate to be allowed such close access to someone else’s thoughts. It’s a great way to get your audience on side with your character. We get to know them better than anyone else in the book does. And when we know a character that well it’s impossible for them to remain a stereotype.

So there you have it: if you get inside your character’s head, really get to understand them, then they cease to be a cliche. It doesn’t matter if they started as the perky cheerleader, or the loner goth kid who reads too much, or the bully with problems at home they will become themselves: real and believable.

Good luck with it!

NaNo Tip No. 16: Edit as You Go

I know I wrote a whole tip telling you to ease up on yourself and expect badness in your first draft. I encouraged you to just pound it out and leave the editing till later.

Sadly, that doesn’t work for every writer. Nor does it work for every book. Although I bashed out a crappy zero draft for the majority of my books, I wrote Liar editing as I went. I don’t think it would have worked to have written it any other way.

I wrote Liar scene by scene. Working on each one until it was polished and gleaming and then, and only then, moving on to the next one. The scenes in Liar are pretty short so it was easier to write that way than if they were longer regular chapters. (You can see an extract here. I talk a bit more about the writing of Liar here.)

The other approach to editing as you go is to start each new session by going over the last bit of the book you wrote. This is an especially good technique for those people who struggle to get going with their writing. Instead of beginning each new session with the scary blankness of what is not yet written, you begin with the comfort of words already on the page. Go over the last couple of chapters, fix what needs fixing from typos on up, reacquaint yourself with your characters and story, and write from there. By the time the draft is finished you’ll have gone over the majority of the novel two or three times and your novel will be in much better shape than if you’d just banged the whole thing out with nary a glance backwards.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach. Like I said I’ve written many novels that way.

You’re now more than half way through NaNoWriMo. Congratulations! And good luck for the next 14 days!

NaNo Tip No. 14: Procrastination can be Your Friend

Yes, it’s time for some more vaguely contradictory advice. So first a word on that. Here’s why this tip is not contradictory. No one technique or strategy works for every writer. They don’t even work for one writer all the time. There are times when the only way I can get any writing done is to cut off from all external stimuli, most especially the internet. Sometimes I can’t write if there’s music on. But other times I need music and I need the internet.

Sometimes my procrastination feeds my writing.

That’s right, sometimes procrastination is your friend.

Yes, I know I just told you to turn the internet off. Well, now I’m telling you to turn it back on again. Or to go clean the bathroom. Or crochet or knit. Shoot some hoops. Take a shower. Or do some other urgent-ish thing that is calling to you rather than writing. Yes, even if it involves hacking off zombie heads.

My biggest form of procrastination is IMing with friends. I have been known to spend 8 hours straight doing so. (Hello, Alaya!) I find five convos1 at the same time no problem.2 I can’t tell you how many times those conversations have given me ideas, solved plot problems, made me realise something about my writing I never realised before.

To be clear we mostly don’t talk about each other’s writing directly. What we do is talk about many other things including shows, books, movies we love (or hate) and what did (or didn’t) work about them. Ever since Diana Peterfreund first nudged me towards watching Avatar we’ve been talking about it. I think writing a convincing and likable Chosen One is incredibly hard. I tend to dislike fiction that centres around one. Yet Aang in Avatar is just about pitch perfect. Our Avatar conversations have sparked off a million and one ideas that have gone into various projects of mine.

So, yes, it’s procrastinating. But it’s also feeding into my work in awesomely productive ways. I think everything I experience feeds into my writing. Which is why I believe procrastination is necessary.

Sometimes you need to be alone with your work. But no one can create without stimulus from the outside world. The key is balancing the two.

  1. More than five, though, and I’m lost. What can I tell you? I’m old. []
  2. While also reading blogs etc. []

NaNo Tip No. 12: Turn the Internet off

It’s day 12 and on the NaNoWriMo blogs there’s much talk of word counts missed, scenes not written, and of generally falling behind. Now that is to be expected. As previously mentioned I do not think you should be freaking out about word counts. NaNoWriMo is chance to stretch and grow. However, I can’t help noticing that those same blog bemoaning lack of progress are also full of talk of excellent blogs with great NaNoWriMo advice and sundry other things discovered on these wonderous intramanets. Could it be that the one is getting in the way of the other?

Perhaps now is the time to rip the DSL from the wall, switch your cable off, hide your modem. Maybe you need to make your internet go away entirely until you’ve gotten as much writing done as you’re capable of.

I am a creature of little self control so sometimes I have Scott take the internet from me so I do not start chatting with everyone I know for hours and hours about writing rather than, you know, actually writing. The most and most consistent writing I’ve ever done was when staying in an internet-less house.

I worry that some of you are as bad as me.

How about for the next few days you experiment with not having the internet on while you NaNoWriMo?

Let me know how it goes.

Note: Today’s tip was brought to you by a swearing John Scalzi.

Don’t forget to check out Scott’s tips. Yesterday’s one was about the passage of disbelief.

Last Night’s Event

The event at Books of Wonder with Libba Bray, Kristin Cashore, Suzanne Collins, me and Scott last night was astonishing. Several people said they thought there were around 200 people there. I could not possibly guess from where I was sitting, but it did indeed appear to be many.

Here’s my bad fuzzy photo of the many:

It was pretty overwhelming to be on the bill with such popular writers, especially Suzanne Collins. For those who don’t know, her two most recent novels, Hunger Games and Catching Fire are currently, and have been for some time, numbers one and two on The New York Times bestsellers list, selling bajillions of copies a week. The Books of Wonder appearance was organised around Suzanne because it was her only signing for Catching Fire. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Peter Glassman (the owner of BoW) thought to ask me to take part. Here’s Suzanne in action (with Libba Bray listening carefully):

I’d never met Suzanne before. She’s lovely, smart and gently funny. She, me and Libba had a fun conversation about the joys (meeting wonderful teens, booksellers, librarians) and travails (food poisoning) of touring. She’s also extraordinarily generous, giving up a big chunk of her presentation to talk in detail about how much she’d loved Liar, Fire,1 Leviathan and Going Bovine. Thank you, Suzanne.

I’d never met Kristin either and she also turned out to be lovely. I don’t know what it is about the YA world but almost all the authors I’ve met have been fabulous.2 It’s such a wonderful community to be part of.

It was only overwhelming at first then it quickly became relaxing. For most of my tour, I’ve done solo events with all the attention on me, but last night I could sit back and watch how other YA authors answer questions about how they come up with names, where they get their ideas, and which characters they like best.

Suzanne and Kristin were both so thoughtful and smart, providing little glimpses into how they work. They both have detailed maps of the imaginary worlds they’ve created. It sounds like Kristin’s world encompasses gazillions of countries and large swathes of time. Very Tolkienesque. Libba Bray remains one of the funniest people on the planet and I don’t just say that because she’s a dear friend of mine. As does Scott.3 Last night’s event made me want to stick to doing events with other people. Not just because it’s more fun for me, but also because it felt like the audience gets more out of it too.

What do you think?

One event I’m dying to do is me and Libba talking about unreliable narrators. For those of you who haven’t read Going Bovine you really should. We wrote Liar and Going Bovine at the same time and commented on each other’s early drafts. I can’t tell you how deeply eerie it was to discover we were both writing unreliable narrators and how many resemblances there were between our books even while they were also extremely different. Going Bovine is hysterically funny; Liar not so much. I think our two books work amazingly well side by side. Turns out I am not the only one to notice this.

Maybe some time next year we’ll be able to talk about our books, their unreliability, and how hard they were to write side by side. Fingers crossed!

  1. As Kristin said, “Look! Our books rhyme!” []
  2. Another contributing factor to why I never want to write for the grown ups: I’d have to hang out with the cranky adult literature authors. Ewww. []
  3. Yes, I know he’s my husband but he truly is hilarious. []

NaNo Tip No. 10: Don’t Skip the Tricky Bits

I hope you all saw Scott’s tip yesterday, the first of a series on meta-documents. Though now that I use Scrivener, I no longer use meta-documents. Or, rather, I do but they’re all incorporated into the one Scrivener document so it doesn’t feel like lots of different documents.

But I digress: on to today’s tip which has nothing to do with meta-documents and also kind of contradicts my previous tip about using square brackets. It emerges from a conversation I had with the marvellous Sarah Rees Brennan. It turns out that she does not skip the boring or tricky bits but instead bribes herself into writing them. Her reward is to write the fun scene on the other side of the tricky bit. So if she doesn’t write the scene she’s been avoiding then she’s not allowed to write the scene she really wants to write.

There are many reasons for doing this but the most frequently cited one is that if you skip all the hard bits—as I advised you to do in the square bracket post—you may never finish the book. As Zeborah puts it:

It means I write all the easy parts of the book first, meaning I have to write all the hard parts later in a single chunk, meaning I probably won’t finish the book. Whereas if I force myself to write entirely in order, I can use a future easy-and-fun scene as a reward for getting through a hard scene.

Another reason not to skip tricky scenes is that sometimes you don’t know whether a scene is going to be hard until you’ve written it. I can’t tell you how many times a scene I was dreading has turned out to be easy and vice versa. A slightly spoilery Liar example after the cut: Continue reading

On Tips + OTP

From various sources, I see that a few people are a little freaked when the tips Scott and me have been sharing don’t work for you. Please to relax. No writing tip works for everyone. And even if it does work for you now, it might not always. For instance, I no longer use square brackets though once I found them extremely useful. My last novel had no zero draft. Some novels I write without paying attention to daily word counts, some novels I do. I’ve not used a time line for most of my books. I’ve never dialogue spined an entire novel.

I recently learned that in certain fandoms OTP stands for One True Pairing. That is, the two characters who are meant to be together. This has made me look at everything with entirely different eyes. Do any of you watch Community? Me and Scott have decided that Abed1 and Troy are that show’s OTP. Our favourite part of Community is their bit after the credits at the end of every show. Fills my heart with joy:

I’m off to spot all the other OTPs in the universe.

  1. Abed as Batman is the best thing in the entire universe. []

NaNo Tip No. 8: Square Brackets

By now I’m sure you’re all racing along in the land of NaNoWriMo: tap tap tappety tap tap. Your little fingers tripping across your keyboard. What a blessed sound that is!

But, wait, you’ve stopped? Why?

Is it because the bit you have to write next is a tad too complicated (how does a nuclear reactor work?) and/or requires research (when a car explodes do the windows go flying out? how far? what does it sound like exactly?) or is too squishy (you got to the love scene, didn’t you?) or you’re not in the mood (writing journeys is boring).

Rather than come to a grinding halt why not square bracket it?

By which I mean do this:

Janice Lardano got out of the car and stared pensively at the nuclear reactor. It made her nervous to go in there but go in there she must.

[scene in nuclear reactor]

As Janice left the nuclear reactor she saw a strange man sprinting away from the parking lot.

[car explodes]

As Janice picked the bits of car from her hair she became aware of a beautiful man looking at her. His teeth gleamed.

[love scene]

Janice finished buttoning her blouse, picked up her purse, and looked back at the gleaming beauty. It would be hard to leave him, but she must. The continued survival of the world was at stake!

[journey in which Janice meets wise woman and saves world]

Janice smiled, reaching out to hold his gleaming hand. Sometimes life really was perfect.

Added bonus: when you get stuck you can go back and fill them in. I also use them for research [how much does mercury weigh?] or for really generic stuff [something else needed here] [they talk and discover they like each other] [denouement] or for instructions or notes to self [make this bit better] [she’s supposed to be angry here she just sounds annoyed].1

There you have it: the glory of square brackets. [Ending could be punchier.]

  1. Though now I use Scrivener I use square brackets a lot less. []

NaNo Tip no. 6: Emergency Unstucking Techniques

One of the most frequent complaints I’m hearing from those down the NaNoWriMo word mines is that they keep getting stuck.

As it happens I have already written a post on how to get unstuck. It is rather lengthy, however, so here’s a quick and dirty version of what you should do when you get stuck:

  • Dance. That’s right, get up from the computer, turn whatever music you like up loud, and shake it! Dance! Dance! Dance! Do it till you’re sweating. Then dance some more.
  • Run around the block. For some of us dancing is just not our thing. But we can run. Or shoots some hoops. Or some other physical activity away from the computer.
  • Read newspapers. This is where Karen Healey gets many of her ideas. Whenever she gets stuck she goes to her fave newspapers and starts reading. Obscure and weird articles are best.
  • Send someone in with a gun. Raymond Chandler’s favourite I’m-stuck solution. He was also fond of knocking his characters unconscious. Many writers like to blow stuff up. Cassandra Clare likes to have characters who fancy each other discover that THEY’RE ACTUALLY BROTHER AND SISTER. The point being: throw complications at your characters. Make ‘em suffer! See how they react.

To sum up: to get unstuck you need to either take a break and do something that uses your whole body, or you need to throw something new at your characters. Or both.

I’m sure my gentle readers will have been more suggestions to unstuckify you.

Good luck!

Tour Almost Over + Gorgeous Art

Today (yesterday) I had my last school events of the Liar tour at Joliet West High School and Glenbard South High School in the outer suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. The students at both schools were amazing and asked many smart, engaged, funny questions. It was a total pleasure to meet you all. Thank you.

In other news Cristina Hernadez posted her midterm project for her painting class on her blog and I was so impressed I asked if I could share it with you here. Remember, Cristina? She’s the one who photoshopped a very disturbing version of Maureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett.

Here’s her midterm painting:

Wow, huh? Cristina also had to write an essay about the painting and I couldn’t help laughing when she wrote this:

Honestly, the hardest part of the project was the ESSAY. I mean, I think I finally understand** why authors moan so much about the “where do you get your ideas” “how did you came up with X idea” kind of question. Because it IS hard to answer!

That’s exactly it. So much easier to write a novel then to explain where it came from. I’ve spent the last few weeks explaining where Liar came from. And honestly? It was mostly bunkum. I don’t really know where it came from. It just is. I can talk to you all day long about the process of writing with lots of singing the praises of Scrivener but ideas? Ideas are magic. No one knows where they come from.

Don’t forget to check out Scott’s NaNo tip!

NaNo Tip no. 4: Word Count is Not Everything

I know that NaNoWriMo is set up with a specific word count in mind. And word counts are, indeed, a useful way to keep track of you progress. However, do not get obsessed with them. The world will not end if you don’t meet your daily word count. Nor will it end if you don’t have 50,000 words at the end of November.

I’m seeing too many people stressing out about word counts and beating up on themselves when they fall short of them. Cut yourself some slack!

Here’s why:

NaNoWriMo is meant to be a fun, companionable way to try your hand at novel writing. That means that over the month you’re going to start to learn what kind of writer you are.1 One of the things you might learn is that you are not a fast writer. There is no shame in that. Lots of very fine writers are slow. Nalo Hopkinson rarely writes more than 500 words a day. Doesn’t get in the way of her producing many wonderful books.

You may also discover that you’re a very fast writer. No shame in that either. I swear I’ve seen Maureen Johnson bang out 20,000 words in a single sitting. That would kill me. She continues to live and breathe and write more wickedly funny words.

Give yourself permission to enjoy NaNoWriMo. So if at the end of the day you’ve only written 150 words, celebrate those words. Do a 150-word dance! Same if it was a one-word day or a six-thousand word day.

Some of you won’t get anywhere near 50,000 words in the month. Perhaps you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about your novel. That’s writing too. There are many writers who need to nut the whole novel out first in their heads before they can start writing. Could be you’re one of those.

Like I said, use the month of November to explore. Whatever you wind up with—on paper or in your head—you’ll know more about yourself as a writer.

Have fun!

  1. I’m still not entirely sure what kind of writer I am. Sometimes two thousand words a day is easy, sometimes it kills me. []

NaNo Tip No. 2: The Zen of First (Zero) Drafts

This is the most important tip of all: It’s only a first draft, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

You know what that means? You can relax. A first draft can be bad. In fact, it will be bad. Don’t worry about it. Plow on. Don’t even think of it as a first draft. That’s too much pressure, not to mention insulting to first drafts, think of it as your zero draft.

That’s what I do.

I get a lot of people asking for tips for dealing with writer’s block. I don’t get writer’s block. But only because I’ve learned not to be bothered by writing utter, utter rubbish.1 I expect my zero draft to be the worst writing in the history of writing thus when it turns out shockingly badly, I am unconcerned. “Why, yes, it is rubbish. No matter, that’s what I was going for.”

I write myself out of trouble,2 but that also mean I write myself into trouble: my zero drafts are full of insanely repetitive passages, and thus full of redundancies. Here is a short example:

Even though he’d now taken it away I could still feel the warmth of where his thumb had briefly brushed against my shoulder.

In the final version it became this:

I felt warmth where his thumb had been.

I have no idea how many drafts the novel went through before that slim sentence emerged from the bloated one. Lots.

I also usually wind up writing something like this at least once in the course of a zero draft:

She wasn’t sure what she was doing there. What was the point? Maybe he wouldn’t meet her after all. She should have stayed in class. She should never have answered the phone. Or talked to him. Or agreed to meet him. Or been born. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she doing something more productive? Somewhere else?

In the final version it looks like this:

. . .

Yup, that’s right, deleted, gone, wiped out, obliterated, not in the book. And if I were writing the preceding sentence in a novel I’d probably pare it down and all. Unless I was going for the laughs. Sometimes repetition can be funny. But only if used sparingly.

So, there you have it my tip is to have fun with your first draft and don’t worry about writing rubbish. Expect it! You can fix it later.

Disclaimer: If this advice doesn’t work for you and you keep getting stuck it could be that you’re an outliner. Down tools and start outlining. But don’t ask me for advice on how to do that cause I have no idea. However, I suspect that once you’ve outlined and start writing your first draft then the above advice may well apply.

Good luck!

  1. Also I don’t get paid if I don’t write. []
  2. As opposed to stopping working and thinking my way out or outlining the next few chapters. []

Tips for NaNoWriMo

Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month. Although I’ve never taken part in it and probably never will,1 I think it’s an awesome way for beginning writers to learn the art of the first draft. I know many pro writers who also use the month to help them slay their deadlines. Nothing like knowing you have comrades-in-arms in your writing struggles.

Scott and me decided that we’ll spend the month offering tips. Scott’s tips will be over on his blog and will appear on the odd numbered days of November, mine will be here on the even days. Though as I’m still deep in Liar promotion, I can’t guarantee my tips will be 100% true. Who knows? Maybe Micah will take over for a few of them?

If you have anything specific you’d like a tip on, let me know in the comments.

Happy Halloween! Don’t scare your younger siblings too much or steal all their sugariffic treats.

  1. November is almost always a travelling month for me. []

The Book You Thought You Were Going to Write

When I first got the idea for Liar I thought it would be a comedy. I thought it would be a goofy, screwball comedy with a protag who was lying about herself out of boredom and insecurity and that as the layers of her lies were peeled away chapter by chapter—“Actually, I’m fourteen, not seventeen, but that’s only three years diff. Not that big of a lie, right?”—through a series of misunderstandings and misadventures she would learn to like herself and lose the need to lie so much. It would be heartwarming, they’d all hug it out, and everyone would learn and grow. You know only funny. Really funny.

The finished Liar turned out somewhat differently. Less with the funny.

This happens to me a lot. I suspect it’s because I don’t plan or outline my novels. Writing the first (or zero) draft is where I do the planning and figuring out and where I discover what kind of book I’m writing. Though maybe that’s what those planners are doing as they outline?1

Just before I start writing a new book I have the shiny wobbly spherical-ish ur-idea of it floating at the front of my brain. I can see the colours and I know what it smells like. It is gorgeous and wonderful. But something happens the moment I start writing it: the-texure-colours-shape-and-smell-novel I thought I was writing begins to fall apart. Every new word on the screen speeds up the process. Within a few thousand words all that’s left is this very faint residue. By the time I finish the first draft I can barely remember the floating sphere of wonder. The book has become its own self.

When I first started trying to write novels that process really bothered me. It drove me nuts that I couldn’t capture what I’d been imagining on the page. I thought it meant I was a terrible writer. But now I know it’s just part of the process and I enjoy it. I’ve decided that exactly capturing those early imaginings would be boring. There’d be no discovery, which is part of why I can’t outline. I really enjoy finding out what kind of novel I’m writing as I write it. I like that my novels surprise me.

But of course as I’ve said here many times before: every novelist writes differently. I’m sure many of them will not recognise what I’m talking about and write exactly the books they imagined. I wonder what that’s like?

  1. Who knows? Their ways are a mystery to me. []

Guestblog on Teenreads

Today I blogged over here. Those of you who’ve been wondering about the process of writing Liar might find it interesting.

Today I prepare for my appearance in Larchmont tonight and the many appearances I’m doing next week in Seattle and Portland. Then I’ll be at the Teen Lit Festival in Austin next Saturday. That’s quite a temperature range. Packing’s going to be fun!

For those of you who only read the posts and not the comments, you really need to check out the comments on the White Writer Advantages thread and the Hating Female Characters one. People are being astonishingly smart.

Scott Westerfeld Talking About, Um, Me

This is a little bit weird. I had no idea it existed and stumbled upon it while, yes, I confess, googling myself.1 So here is my husband talking with the Romantic Times about my latest book and what it’s like writing in the same room:

Here’s my response:

Firstly, those who’ve heard me talk about writing may remember that I, too, use that high diving metaphor. Yup, stole that one from Scott. Hey, he steals heaps of my stories and metaphors too. We’re an equal opportunity story-stealing household.

It’s also true that we are each other’s first readers, or in this case, listeners, and that we make many suggestions for changes to each other’s work. Many of which wind up happening. I’ve been asked if that means we collaborate on everything we write. No, only in a really broad sense could you say that. And it would be so broad it would make the word “collaborate” meaningless.

One thing I find really interesting is that despite how closely we work together, and how involved we are in each other’s work, our writing voices are very different. I could not write like Scott no matter how hard I tried. And he could not write like me. I don’t have the simile bug for one.2 But I do think we understand each other’s work better than anyone else and thus are really good at suggesting ways to make it better. Admittedly my jobs a little easier than Scott’s. All I have to do to improve his current series is point out that it’s time to blow something else up.

All right, that’s enough self-indulgence from me this morning, let’s take this outwards: How many of you work very closely with another writer? Do you read you work aloud to someone else? Is there anyone who reads and critiques every word you write from the very first draft?

Do anyone of you never show your work to anyone?

Tell me about your critiquing process!

  1. What? I wanted to check out some more Liar reviews. That’s not a crime, is it? []
  2. I defy you to find a page of Scott’s work without a simile on it. I have whole novels with nary a simile. []

The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. []
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. []
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. []

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.

Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.

To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”

What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!

Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.

That’s the risk you take when you write a book.

If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.

If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.

What should you do when you are criticised?

Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.

Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.

Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.

Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?

What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.

Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.

Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.

Thus endeth the rant.

  1. Trust me, I get that one all the time []
  2. I am SO over vampires. Except for the good ones. []

Very Wrong Questions

Currently I am at the Melbourne Writers Festival and thus I am fielding many questions about writing and publishing. I noticed again that many of the questions unpublished writers ask are coming at it from the wrong end of the stick. Ally Carter calls this asking the wrong questions.

For instance, after yesterday’s event an adult came up to me and explained that they are an aspiring writer working on their first novel. They said they wanted my advice but the questions they asked really confused me:

What’s the best way to get started writing fan fiction?

How do you build up a following?

Should I be using wordpress, livejournal or blogger?

It took me awhile to realise what was going on. They wanted to know what to do to get a publisher’s attention. And they had decided the best way to do that was to reverse engineer other writers’ successes. Two of their favourite writers had started out as fan fiction writers and developed big followings. Another of their favourites was a blogger who had sold a novel they had first posted on their website.

The problem with that plan1 is that there only a handful of writers in the entire world who got published that way. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets.

Besides which, none of those writers did it on purpose. They wrote fanfic because they loved it. They blogged for the same reason.2 Because they loved it and were good at it they developed a following. None of them blogged and wrote fanfic in order to develop a following.3

I stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure out how to respond to these wrong questions. Should I tell this aspiring writer that they had the cart so far in front of the horse that the two were never going to meet?

Instead I asked AW a question:

Justine: “How many novels have you written?”

Aspiring Writer: Silence.

Justine: “Have you written one novel?”

AW: “Well, um, I’m halfway into my first one.”

Justine: “You don’t have a finished draft?”

AW: “No.”

I told the AW about how I started at least twenty novels before I finally finished one. I did not sell the first novel I completed. Or my second. I sold my third novel. I know many, many writers who sold their fifth, eight, or twentieth novel first. The majority of published writers did not sell the first novels they wrote.

I explained how bad it is for you to start thinking about marketing and promotion before you’ve even learned whether you can finish a novel. It will do your head in. It’s bad enough angsting about all that stuff when you do have published novels.

I think I got through to AW. I think I finally know how to get other wrong question asking aspiring writers back on to right questions. From now on I am going to ask them how many novels they’ve written.

  1. Okay, there are MANY problems with that plan. Starting with it being insane. []
  2. Many of them still do both. []
  3. How do I know? The writers in question are friends of mine. Yes, I know everyone. []

Ari’s Guest Blog No. 2: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

I’m back! So yesterday I gave you a list of books about poc that I think you should read, although I’m sure I left off some great books by accident. If you want some more lists check out Susan’s at Color Online for specifically sci-fi check this out the Happy Nappy Bookseller’s list and for bi-racial, multi-racial poc go here.

Also I want to share some information with you on the Diversity Roll Call meme. Diversity Roll Call is hosted by Ali at worducopia and Susan at Color Online. Anyone can participate. It’s for two weeks and is basically like a challenge. The meme asks you to really evaluate your reading habits, how diverse are they (gender wise, religion wise, race-wise, economics-wise, sexual orientation).

The current assignment asks you to blog about a book that appeals to both genders, talk about gender in your writing (if you’re an author), or take a book that you love and change the gender of the protag. You can do all or either of these. I highly recommend everyone join in! More details when you follow the above link. If you don’t have a blog, just leave a comment answering the question. Have fun!

You may be wondering: why should I read books about people who aren’t like me? They’re not the same gender as me, the same sexual orientation, race, or religion. I’m uncomfortable reading about what I don’t know. I would never be able to understand them.

My response: No, no, no! Don’t think like that. First of, let me explain. I don’t only read books about poc. I’ve read (and loved) many books featuring white characters (I currently really want to read Eyes Like Stars, Deadline, Angry Management, Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, and Perfect Chemistry). But I don’t just want to read books about people who don’t look like me, so I can understand where the ‘I don’t wanna read about people I can’t relate to’ crowd is coming from.

Sometimes I don’t pick up a book because there’s a white person on the cover and I think ‘I can’t relate.’ But then I stop and think ‘I would hate to know someone else is doing this same thing to a book with a Latina on the cover’ (or any other race/religion/gender/sexual orientation), so I at least read the synopsis. Often I end up getting the book and enjoying it (like You Are So Undead to Me, the Mortal Instruments Trilogy, the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Heat, Private series).

I think it’s important to expand your horizons. Reading books can really put you in someone else’s shoes. For example, Whale Talk is one of my favorite books in the world. I could totally relate to the male main character even though I’m not a guy. Or reading about a lesbian teen (Down to the Bone—on my tbr list!) even if you’re straight can help you experience and sympathize with the hate, ignorance and discrimination LGBT teens and adults often face. They can also make you see that the way LGBT teens feel about their loves and lives are pretty similar to those of a straight person, the only difference is liking their same gender (or both genders).

Also, often when you’re reading a book you may not even notice their ethnicity a whole lot (like in the Make Lemonade Trilogy), they just are what they are. You get so wrapped up in thinking ‘Yeah I’ve been through that’, or ‘I definitely would have said that too’, that you don’t notice a character’s race, religion, or gender or anything else, except that you can relate. That’s awesome. One of the most powerful things books can do is help tear down stereotypes (especially the negative ones). They educate, uplift and make us laugh. Read more books about poc, the opposite gender or sexual orientation, and/or religion and I bet you’ll not only learn something new, but you’ll really enjoy it (maybe not all, but I’m sure you won’t hate all books about guys, if you’re a girl, for example.)

In writing this blog post, I’ve stepped back and really looked at my diverse reading habits. I definitely need to read more books about LGBT teens, Native American teens, Asian teens, and teen guys. So if you have any suggestions do share!

I hope I haven’t bored or insulted anyone. I would love to hear your thoughts on my posts so leave a comment on Justine’s blog, my blog, or email me willbprez at aol dot com.

Thanks Justine for letting me guest blog! I hope you don’t regret it.

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

Why My Protags Aren’t White

I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.

I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.

Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

I’m not saying my books are perfect. They’re not. If I could go back and rewrite them I would be much more specific about Tom and Jay-Tee’s backgrounds. Tom is just white. I’m specific about his bit of Sydney and about his parents’ occupations, but not about their or his ethnicity. White is not just one flavour. Nor do I go into any kind of detail about what kind of Hispanic Jay-tee is. Is her family from Puerto Rico? Mexico? Venezuela? Dominican Republic? All/none of the above? I say she’s from the Bronx but not where in the Bronx. It’s a big place. (Please forgive me, all my Bronx friends! Especially you, Coe.) As a result I was much more specific about Micah’s background in Liar. All mistakes and oversights in that book will be worked out in the books I’m writing now. The things I get wrong in those books will be fixed in the books I write after them. And so it goes . . . (I hope.)

Questions of representation were not foremost in my mind when I was writing the Magic or Madness trilogy. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white country. Thinking about race and representation is something I have to make myself do because my life is not governed negatively by it as others’ lives are, like, say Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It was the response of my readers that got me thinking hard about representation. Now those questions are foremost when I write.

Thus when I sat down to write How To Ditch Your Fairy I already knew none of the characters would be white. I also knew that I was writing a somewhat utopian world1 in which race and gender were not the axes of oppression that they are in our world. Female athletes having as strong a prospect of making a living at their sport as a boy is clearly not true in our world, but it is in the world of HTDYF. Nor is there any discrimination on the basis of race. But there is on the basis of class and geography. (I was not writing a perfect world.)

Not many people noticed, or if they did, they didn’t mention it to me, but I was dead chuffed by those who did. Thank you.

  1. In some ways it’s very dystopian. []

Writing too much

If my brain wasn’t broken I would do some basic research to find out what research has been done on overloaded brains.

I get to a point when I’m writing a lot when I just can’t. My brain mushes. Sentences turn murky. Gibberish dribbles out of my mouth. My typing slows and the level of typoes skyrockets. Always means I’ve written too much and I have to stop.

I wonder what’s going on. Almost all my writer friends get the same thing. Is it just fatigue? Or is there something specific to writing?

Anyone got any theories? Seen any research on it?

Stalker Song + Giveaway

I have been promising for some time that I would write about how most love songs are actually about stalking. However that time is not now on account of I am behind with everything. So far behind that I can’t continue any feuds with other YA writers or—much much worse—follow the Tour de France. Yes, it’s that bad. Again.

In the meantime tell me what your favourite/most appalling stalker song is in the comments below. I will send a signed (by me and Scott) copy of the anthology Love is Hell to the commenter whose stalker song selections most amuses me. Or at random if the busy-ness makes my brain not function enough to decide. You can find the first part of my story in the anthology here.

In the meantime here’s Stalker Song by Charlotte Martin (via Stephanie Leary):

Fan v Pro

The discussion in the fanfic post got me thinking about the differences between writing to make a living, as I do, and writing solely for fun.

Many people in that thread talked about how writing fanfic was a learning experience that prepared them for becoming a professional writer. And there’s no doubt that that’s how fanfic has worked for many pros. However, the vast majority of writers of fanfic not only don’t become pros, they have no desire to do so. They write fanfic for a variety of reasons: fun, community, because writing is something they can’t not do and so on—they don’t do it as some kind of apprenticeship for becoming a “real” writer.

I know professional writers who also write fanfiction. So clearly it’s fulfilling a need that their paid writing isn’t. I also do a lot of unpaid writing. You’re reading some of it right now. Often I enjoy writing posts here more than writing novels.

Or, rather, I have a much less stressful relationship to this writing than I do to my novel writing because there’s not much riding on this blog, whereas my ability to pay my rent, buy food, stay in the profession that I love is tied up in the novels I write. Sometimes it takes awhile to push that stuff aside and just write. For me blogging is a relaxation; writing novels is an economic necessity.

Which is not to say that it can’t be fun. It can. I wouldn’t swap my job for any other job in the world. I love it. But it’s still my job and comes with all the stresses that any job has, including anxiety about losing said job.

Not everyone who spends a lot of time writing wants to be a professional writer. Frankly, I think that’s sensible. It’s very hard to make a living as a professional writer. Even if you do manage it’s just as hard to make it a sustainable career. I know lots of writers who’ve been able to support themselves for a year or two or four or ten but then demand for their work dwindle, fashion in the publishing world changes. In the 80s horror was huge, now not so much. YA’s big right now but who knows were it will be in ten years. Romance is pretty much always the biggest selling genre and yet it has the lowest advances. I know of romance writers with multiple bestselling books who only get around 20k per book.

The majority of pro novelists, who are making a living, write a book a year. Many write two or three or four a year. For many writers that’s an impossible pace to sustain and it can suck the fun right out of the writing. There are lots of reasons for not making writing your main profession. Most of the published writers I know are not full-time. Many of them claim to be happier that way.

When writing becomes your full time job it completely changes your relationship to writing. It becomes a business. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to force it when you’re not in the mood. You have to meet deadlines. You have to think about whether there’s a market for what you want to write. You can’t just write whatever you feel like unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a market for what you feel like writing.

In which case you’re probably Nora Roberts. Lucky duck!

Fanfic

I keep meeting published authors who wrote (or still write) fanfic before they tried writing original fiction. I know of folks who wrote (write) Star Trek, Buffy, Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, Supernatural and Naruto fanfic. And I’m sure lots of others I can’t remember.

I’ve never written fanfic. I didn’t hear about fanfic until long after I was already writing original fiction. And it never occurred to me on my own to write stories set in other people’s worlds. I’m slow that way.

How many of you write fanfic? What kind? How did you first hear about it?

Writing Physical Pain

Pain is extraordinarily hard to write about. Chronic pain is hardest of all. How do you write about a character whose every day, every moment, is shaped around constant pain? And not wear out the reader’s sympathy.

It can be done. It has been done.

And when it is done convincingly; those are often difficult books to read.

Half the time we don’t want to know about the pain of people we know in real life. Part of us wants them to suffer in silence. We’re embarrassed by others’ suffering, bored by it, made to feel helpless in the face of our inability to do anything about it, afraid it might be contagious, upset by it, angered, and a gazillion other complicated feelings.

It’s even hard to write about relatively minor injuries. There are gazillions of books out there where the character suffers an injury only for the writer to forget about it for the rest of the book or totally minimise it. I am guilty of this. Reason is injured in the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Somehow telling the story kept getting in the way of showing Reason’s injury and how she dealt with it. (Since the book takes place over a short period of time the injury would not have healed entirely.) If I could go back and rewrite the trilogy that’s one of the many things I would fix.

Pain is something we all go through to a lesser or greater extent. It’s something we all know intimately. Yet it’s so hard to describe and write about. It’s hard to push beyond “it hurts” and not wallow in it and also hold your reader.

I’d be curious to hear about your experience writing characters in physical pain. (For some reason emotional pain is easy as pie.) And also your experiences reading characters in pain. Are there any writers or books you think handle it particularly well?

Literary Influences

One of the questions writers get asked fairly often is who their literary influences are. I rarely know how to answer that question. Mostly because it’s usually asked about a specific book. I have no idea what writers and books influenced How To Ditch Your Fairy. And the Magic or Madness trilogy was more influence by fantasy books that drove me spare than the ones I loved. The people asking the question tend not to want to hear about negative influences.

I suspect the people best positioned to answer the question are not the writers but the readers. I’m dreadful at spotting my influences.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this post is going behind a cut because I discuss literary influences on Liar and I happen to know that some of you are as nutty about spoilers as I am and don’t want to know even the tiniest bit about the book before you read it. Though I think identifying specific literary influences is way more that just a tiny bit spoilery. And one of the ones I’m going to talk about below this cut is MASSIVELY spoilery. (Well, in JustineLand. I have a much broader definition of spoiler than most people, which makes conversations with Sarah Rees Brennan and Diana Peterfreund difficult sometimes as neither seems to understand the concept of the spoiler at all. Bless them!)

You has been warned.

Continue reading

Language Wars

One of the best books I ever read about language is Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene, which was published way back in 1995. It’s a wonderful look at the way people try to regulate language to make it functionally, aesthetically and morally “better” and how insanely outraged and angry they get about it.

There are people who are completely wedded to the Latin-ification of English grammar that began in the 1700s, thus they are wedded to “he” as the universal pronoun, believe that infinitives must not be split, and are deeply in love with the subjunctive mood, which is on its way out in English.1

There are those who are appalled by changes in the spelling and meaning of words. They’re outraged that “alright” is becoming as common a spelling as “all right.”2 They mourn the loss of the distinct meaning of the word “disinterest” etc etc.

There are those still wedded to what their English/MFA teacher taught them in primary school/university. Never use passive voice! Never end or begin a sentence with a conjunction! Avoid adverbs! Use adjectives sparingly!

A large chunk of my university training was in linguistics. I was trained in descriptivist traditions. That is, I was learning how to describe language use not how to police it. We never discussed wrong usage ever. That concept just didn’t exist. I studied how various different groups used language. We looked at language acquisition in small children as well as those learning English for the first time as adults. We looked at the way language changes. How what was once non-standard becomes standard and vice versa. Things like that.

I learned to listen to what people really said and to think about how and why. This is reflected in the novels I write. I use “alright” in dialogue because that’s what I hear many people saying, not “all right.” Particularly younger speakers, which is who most of my characters are. Many of my characters split infinitives, don’t use subjunctive, don’t say “whom” and thus commit what some consider crimes against language. Yes, I have gotten letters to that effect.

It is fascinating how intensely invested people are in language use. Especially writers. Whenever I discuss this with writer friends we don’t get very far because many of them are wedded to one or more of the uses I observe disappearing. Don’t defend the “alright” spelling in front of John Scalzi, for instance. I get that passion. I’m sad about “disinterest” losing its specific meaning too. But not that sad. There are other ways to say the same thing, which don’t confuse as many people. Sadly, they’re usually longer and less elegant.

I’m as invested as they are in my understanding of how language works and how it is deployed, which is why I get into so many heated discussions with my writer friends and protracted battles with editors, coypeditors and proofreaders, who are almost all prescriptivist. Like Geoffrey Pullum, I think The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is an amusing but insane set of self-contradicting rules: if you try to match rule with examples your head will explode. But I know people who find Strunk & White useful and have learned to write clearly from it.

English is a contradictory sprawling mess. Any attempt to map it out with a set of rules is doomed to self-contradiction and insanity. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is as bad as Strunk & White. But has also been useful to many floundering in the mess that is English. Even attempts to merely describe the language are doomed. It’s too big, too unwieldy and growing too fast.

That’s part of why the English language makes me so happy.3 I can’t spell it very well, according to many I abuse its grammar rules, but English lets me break it open, pull out new words, mash up old ones. I get to play with how it looks and sounds and feels.

Like those who stand tall to defend English from the likes of me, I love it.

Just, you know, my love is more fun. :-)4

  1. Though I will confess that I am using subjunctive a lot in my 1930s novel, whose omni narrator is on the pompous side. []
  2. (For the record, I think “alright” and “all right” are often used as two different words and deploy them thus in my books, giving my copyeditors major headaches. []
  3. Not that I have many points of comparison given that I’ve never been completely fluent in any other language. I had a decent grasp of Kriol when I was very little but that’s long gone. I learned some Bahasa Indonesia in high school and first year uni. Also mostly gone. And then learned Spanish while living there for five months many years ago. My Spanish is also disappearing from lack of use. []
  4. That smiley isn’t going to save me from the haters, is it? []

On Research

In the comments thread on my post about some of the research for Liar Kathleen asked:

Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

I started answering the questions in the comments but it got too long so I have given my answer its own post. Lucky answer gets an upgrade!1

No, there’s no point in writing a book in which I stop researching. In fact, I was up at Central Park again this week checking out a few things for Liar that I’ll now be changing in the first pass pages.2

Especially when I’m writing an historical the research is all the time. As some of you may know my current project is set in the 1930s in New York City. Before I started writing I already knew a fair amount about the place and the period because of earlier research projects. So the first thing I did was to find out if there’d be any new books since I my research was now more a decade old. Then I started reading those new books and articles. At the same time I started writing the novel.

That’s one of the important things I have learned. Never leave the writing until you feel like you’re on top of the research. Because if you’re anything like me you’ll never get there. I’ve been at this for well over a year now and I still don’t feel like I know enough. I’m still finding out cool tidbits. Did you know there was a Little Syria in NYC in the 1920s? I just found that out yesterday. Now I’m wondering if it was still around in the early 1930s. What did it look like?

I used to do the research first and only when I felt like I knew enough did I start writing. But I never felt like I did. So—you guessed it—I didn’t start writing. The only reason I started my PhD thesis was because my scholarship was going to run out. But I learned my lesson: never put off the writing.

I write until I hit a point where I don’t know enough. If it’s a big thing—I’m writing a scene set in a buffet flat in Harlem but I’m not sure what one might have looked like—I’ll stop writing and go back to researching. But if it’s just a small thing I leave a note for myself [what kind of toothpaste? powder?] and continue writing.

Which means I’m always constantly rewriting—going back and filling in the square brackets, as well as changing stuff I’ve guessed wrong, and adding cool new details: Little Syria!3 That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun. And unlike scholarly research I don’t have to footnote everything. Or anything really.

It’s all of the fun with little of the tedium.

Kathleen also asked:

I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

Yes, that feeling is part of any writing gig that involves lots of research. There’s always more to learn. But it’s one of the beauties of fiction. It doesn’t matter if some scientist makes a breakthrough that negates your plot because you’re writing fiction not a peer-review science article. A good story is a good story. Lots of my fave sf is based on outmoded science. Proabably all of it. Doesn’t matter.

All fiction dates in one way or other. But the good fiction outlives its datedness.

  1. Hope it doesn’t go to the answer’s head. []
  2. Typeset pages which have been proof read. I.e. these are the first page that look like the book will finally look. I check to see if I agree with the proof reader’s catches and to fix anything else that needs fixing. []
  3. Which may change the direction of the plot. []

Writing tickets

There’s a very fine line between promoting your books and writing tickets on yourself. It’s a moving line. What one person finds overly self promotery other people think is fine.

For instance, I was once told I had crossed the line because my Livejournal icons were of the front covers of my books. I thought that was nuts. I like the covers of my books. Why can’t I make icons out of them? Too pushy, I was told. It’s like you’re only on Livejournal to get people to buy your books. Someone else told me I shouldn’t mention my books on my blog because it sounds like I just want people to buy them and that’s the only reason I blog. On the other hand someone wrote wanting to know why there are no links to buy my books on this site. When I told them it’s because I think that’s pushy they said I was weird. (A definite possibility.)

I find it icky when authors blog about what voting awards (Hugo, Locus etc) they’re eligible for. To me it reads like they’re asking you to vote from them, which I find tacky. I mentioned this to some friends and they told me I was being crazy. That it is remiss of an author not to do that since the people who vote for these kind of awards often have no clue what’s eligible and like to be reminded. That it’s not about being self-aggrandising; it’s about giving readers information.

All these different takes on what constitutes being too self-promotery has led me to the conclusion that the only way to handle it is to do what you’re comfortable with. I am comfortable with icons of my covers. I am not comfortable blogging about good reviews of my work. (Or bad reviews for that matter.) Or skiting about being shortlisted or winning awards. (Not that it happens very often.) Because I honestly don’t think any of that has much to do with me. Reviews and awards are for readers not authors. I think the most important thing they do is help people find books that might otherwise have been overlooked. For me to engage with them is beside the point. So I no longer do.

I am comfortable (actually I’m ecstatically happy) blogging about the process of researching and writing my books, about the different markets my books have been sold into, the different covers the books get. All that fascinates me. As this is my blog I gets to write about it even if others think that’s too self-promotery.

What’s your take on all of this? I’d love to hear from authors and readers. What do you find too much? Are their authors you wish promoted themselves a bit more?

Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []

A most excellent research tool

Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.

Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.

I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.

“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.

Win some; lose some.

The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.

Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.

But the OED is an awesome starting point.

So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2

Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .

  1. According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s. []
  2. Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be. []

Thinking time

Jenny Davidson links to a lovely article by David Hajdu where he talks about Riverside Park on the west side of Manhattan beside the Hudson river.1 I especially linked this bit where he writes about the thinking that goes into a book. I spend a vast part of my writing time figuring things out in my head, what if-ing, and just randomly musing. It all goes into the books. I adore reading people write about that elusive part of writing:

Since college, I have lived mostly on the Upper West Side, and I’ve done a great deal of work in Riverside Park. By work, I mean not just the labor of making sentences; I mean the different sort of effort involved in reading or listening to music that I want to write about. I had the author photos for my first two books (“Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” and “Positively 4th Street”) taken in Riverside Park, because the books were essentially made there. The park is where I did the musing that can be the most important part of writing.

Working in Riverside Park, one is reminded from time to time of the porous line between musing and daydreaming. My bench of choice faces the river, and I sometimes find the steady, endless rolling of the water lulling me to dreaminess. I like to think of this state as one conducive to epiphany, although it more often leads, in my case, to naps.

All so true. I can’t tell you how many times that wavering state where you’re not asleep but you’re not entirely in the here and now leads to insights and connections and ways to make the book I’m writing so much better.

It’s also very true that the same state can slide straight into sleep. As risks go that’s not a bad one. I quite like sleeping, me.

  1. For the New Yorkers, who are scornful of that description, may I remind you that many of my readers have never been to NYC and have no idea where or what the Upper West Side is. []

Make it the best book you can

There’s a certain misery in the air right now. I’m reading it on other writer’s blogs. I’m feeling it myself. Seeing it in tweets. Hearing it in late night conversations in bars. It’s kind of everywhere. So many writers I know, or who I follow on line, or in interviews, are grappling with their own self worth as writers. If I’m not selling am I still a writer? If I can’t get published am I still a writer? If my contract got cancelled am I still a writer? If my next book doesn’t do as well as my last book am I still a writer? If I don’t win awards am I still a writer? If reviewers hate my books am I still a writer?

I myself have thwacked a few writer friends with pep talks in the last few weeks.

Actually, it’s just the one pep talk and it goes like this:

You can only control the book you write.

You can’t control whether you sell it. You can’t control how big the advance is if you sell it. You can’t control how much is spent promoting it. You can’t control how many copies Barnes & Noble takes or whether they take it at all. You can’t control whether punters buy it when it finally appears on the shelves. You can’t control the reviews. You can’t control the award committees.

Spending time and energy angsting about any of that stuff will only do your head in.

All you can do is write the very best book you can.

It will get published or it won’t. It will find its market or it won’t. It will sell or it won’t. It will win awards or it won’t. None of that matters if you’ve written the best book you can.

Books with huge advances and the biggest marketing and publicity budget in the world sink like a stone. Books with nary a sheckle spent on them take off out of nowhere. Books you think are terrible do great; books you worship sell fewer than a thousand copies. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Do not let it do your head in.

Because if you believe that your worth as a writer is tied up in how well your books do even success won’t help. Do not be gloating that your book is doing better than so and so’s. That you can write full-time while they need a day job. Tables turns. So what if your current book is the hugest hit ever? What happens if the book after that isn’t? What happens if your biggest success is already behind you? Does that mean you’re not a real writer? That you’re a failure?

Elizabeth Gilbert touches on all these issues in her recent wonderful talk on genius and creativity. If you haven’t already, you really must check it out for she argues that you cannot let your sense of self get tied up in how your books do and also that it’s a pernicious myth that a creative person must be insane or damaged or both and that ultimately your art will destroy you.

It dovetails neatly with my thinking of late. Because I’ve been wondering if all the angsting that I and so many other writers do is fueled by a belief in those myths. Do we angst because we think we should? Because that’s what we’ve learned writers do? Deep in our subconscious do we believe that we’re not a real writer if we’re not suffering?

I believed it growing up. When I was young I obsessively read and re-read Katinka Matson’s Short lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self-destruction and the work of all the writers included in that book. I honestly thought that in order to be creative I would have to suffer and be self-destructive.

It bewildered me that any time actual bad things happened I found myself unable to write. I was not inspired by them, I was devastated. I have always written more prolifically and better when I’m happy. Later, much later, I could make sense of the bad things, but never at the time. Conversely I am always much happier when I’m writing a lot. When the writing is going well I’m way happier than any award or review or book sales have ever made me.

I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success. How To Ditch Your Fairy was the easiest and most fun book to write, thus far it’s been my most successful. Despite my struggles on the rewrite of the liar book it’s still been a much easier and more fun book to write than Magic’s Child, which was (other than my PhD thesis) my most unhappy writing experience. Rewriting the liar book’s been hard, but it’s also mostly been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes I’d really like not to be in the narrator’s head, cause, well, she’s a compulsive liar, but the tricky structure has been an excellently brain stretching experience. I’ve learned so much writing the book; I think I’m a better writer because of it. That’s very happy making.

If the liar book does well in the real world that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, I still know it’s the best book I could possibly make it.

I will admit that I have talked about writing the liar book as though I were suffering. Because I kind of thought I should be. Which is nuts.

The myth of the suffering artist is very pervasive.

But Liz Gilbert is right: it’s a stupid myth. We should forget about it. Write because you love it. Write because it’s your job. Write to produce the best books you can and to be happy with them. No matter what happens after they’re out of your control you will know that you made them as good as you knew how.

That’s the part of being a writer that is in our own hands; that’s the part that truly matters.

Juvenilia panel

As many of you know the first-ever NYC Teen Author Festival (March 16-22, 2009) starts in two days. There are many fabulous, wonderful events. Make sure you check out the full schedule over here. But as far as I’m concerned there’s only one event that’s unmissable:

You really need to hear just how bad our writing once was. But here’s what John Scalzi had to say after moderating our last juvenilia panel:

    “I was hitting my head on the table to stop the pain.”

How could you miss such an event? Don’t you want to heckle the badness? Laugh until you cry? Vote on who is the worst writer of all?

It really is worth ducking out of work early, skipping basketball/band practice, or whatever other thing that’s currently getting in your way. You know you want to mock us. You know you want to see how very very bad writing can be.

See all you New Yorkers Monday at 4PM in Tompkins Square Park Library!

P.S. I’m especially looking forward to Alaya’s contribution which was even stored in a purple folder.

Where to get your work critiqued

Several people have written asking if it’s not kosher to ask pros for help where can they get their work critiqued?

That’s a very good question with many answers.

For most of my years of being unpublished almost no one saw my work.1 Thus I did not improve much. But in the five or so years before publication I started swapping my work with other unpublished writer friends.2 What a difference having a few readers makes!

I was lucky enough to live in big enough cities that finding other beginning writers wasn’t too hard. (Sydney and NYC.) But I know many of you are more isolated than that. Or you’re too shy to admit that you want to be a published writer.3 For you I recommend online critique groups. Personally, I have never tried them because back when I was starting out they didn’t exist. But I know many people who’ve had great experiences with them. The Critters workshop for science fiction & fantasy is one I’ve heard good things about.

Anyone want to share their online critting experiences and/or recommend some good online worshops?

I also know many people whose writing lives have been dramatically changed by going to real life intensive workshops such as Clarion (also for sf & f) which operates in Australia and the US of A. Does anyone have other real life workshops to recommend?

Of course, something like Clarion lasts six weeks and isn’t free. Many people can’t afford that amount of time or money so it’s not going to be possible for everyone. Fortunately most online workshops are free.

And remember that crit groups and workshops don’t work for everyone and that they’re not all created equal. Just as some critique partners will work great for you and others won’t, and that may also vary from story to story.

Please chime in with any other suggestions and recommendations.

Thanks!

  1. For those who don’t know it took me twenty years to get published. []
  2. Here’s the story of how I wrote my first novel thanks to my wonderful critique partner Johanne Knowles. []
  3. It took me years to admit it to any but my closest friends and family. []

No, I won’t read your story (updated)

One of the hardest things I have to do is say no to the folks who write and ask me to read and comment on their work. In the last two weeks I’ve had five such requests. All for novels.

In the last week I finished reading exactly 0 novels. Let me repeat that: in the last week I finished reading no novels. Not a single one. Actually, it’s worse than that I haven’t finished a novel since January and it was a book I was asked to blurb.1

I get asked to read quite a few books every year. There’s the blurb books. Given that my career has been helped by other writers blurbing me, I always say yes to these requests. Yes, that is to reading the book. I won’t blurb a book unless I love it.

Then there’s all the novels I critique for friends. Right now I have six early draft novels on my hard drive. One of which I’ve had for seven months now. They are all wonderful writers whose work I adore reading. Not to mention that I owe them as they’ve all critiqued my own work. Yet here I sit with six unread mss, one unread blurb book, and dozens of unread 1930s novels.

Critiquing a novel requires a brain firing on all cylinders and lots of time.2 In its own way I find it every bit as challenging as writing. Given that I earn my living from writing, my own stuff gets top priority. At the end of the day if I have anything left over I start critiquing one of the backlog of novels. Though when a friend’s having a real emergency I’ll drop everything to critique for them. They’ve done the same for me often enough.

But lately I haven’t had anything left over. Rewriting the Liar novel has been the most challenging writing of my career.3 The research and writing of the 1930s novel takes up the rest of my time. Who knew trying to understand the Great Depression would be so hard? I guess my extremely sketchy knowledge of Economics has been a wee bit of a handicap.

And I have a life outside writing and reading. I know it sounds strange but sometime I go outside and, you know, do things. Often I do them with my friends and family. Also I cook, I clean, I buy groceries and pay bills. Life stuff.

That is why I say no to all outside critique requests. I simply don’t have the time or the energy. It’s also why there are so many posts about the writing process on this blog. I may not be able to help you directly, but maybe I can help indirectly.

Good luck with your writing!

Update: For those of you who’ve been asking how to go about getting critiqued I’ve written a few suggestions. Hopefully, there’ll be more in the comments thread as well.

  1. That is not usual. I’m a three-novels a week kind of a girl. But lately the majority of my reading has been non-fiction. This is what happens when you take on an historical project. []
  2. Depending on the length, it takes me a solid ten or more hours to read and critique a novel. []
  3. I took on an unreliable narrator and the unreliable narrator is kicking my arse. Mental note: never write an unreliable narrator EVER AGAIN. []

Questions I have been asked lately

These questions come from my email and from this blog. Cause I’m short on time I thought I’d just answer ‘em all here:

Q: Don’t you think it’s wrong that Stephen King attacked Stephenie Meyer?

A: No, I don’t. I also don’t think he attacked her. Writers are allowed to not like other writers’ books. We’re even allowed to say so out loud. Saying you don’t think much of someone’s writing or their books is not an attack on them. Writers are not their books.

The only reason I don’t blog my opinion of books by living people is because I am a coward. Why I even got into trouble for admitting my hatred of Moby Dick and of a certain famous detective series. It’s not even safe to hate books by dead people!

Writers are crazy. And fans of writers are almost as lunatic. Truly. See what happens if you say anything against Angela Carter on my blog. Hint: I WILL KILL YOU DEAD.

Since I know just how bad we writers and fans are I do not engage. But I do not object to others’ bravery in doing so.

Sash asked: Sorry if you’ve already answered this somewhere, but are there any Brisbane appearances coming up??

A: No, there are no Brisbane events for me. You can find all my confirmed appearances here. I update it as soon as an event is confirmed. And I always announce any new appearances here on the blog.

I don’t choose where I go. All my appearances in Australia are organised by my wonderful publisher here, Allen & Unwin. My appearances in the US are organised by Bloomsbury. If you want me to appear in your town or city you need to bug them. Go to their websites and find the contact email address for publicity. Then write and tell them why you think I should go to your neck of the woods.

Q: I’m a published YA writer but many of my friends are literary writers and they sneer at me for writing YA. How can I get them to read my books and realise that YA is not crap?

A: You can’t. Just give up now. Nothing you can do or say will change their minds. Unless you start publishing capital L Literachure and win the Booker. And even then they’ll think it’s a fluke cause you’re really a YA writer. Or they’ll be impressed and congratulate you for finally having grown up as a writer.

What you really need is new friends. Preferably ones who read and write YA.

Jessica asked: “…the Australian press sometimes has a strange habit of always being about 15 years behind everyone else when it comes to realising that things like children’s books, graphic novels or genre fiction might actually have some validity or even readers.” I was curious about the Australian publishing industry in general. And since sometimes you talk about it (or Australian authors), I thought you’d be a good person to ask!

A: I guess my response would be: show me a mainstream press anywhere in the English-speaking world that’s realised that children’s books, graphic novels and genre fiction are important. The mainstream coverage of those areas is pretty woeful everywhere. I don’t think Australia’s any worse than the US or the UK. It’s just smaller and thus has less press so it probably looks from the outside like there’s less coverage. Thanks to Jason Nahrung The Courier Mail in Brisbane is especially good on covering all those areas.

Q: Are those birds on your blog real?

A: Yes.

Q: Whereabouts in Surry Hills are your new digs?

A: In the good part of Surry Hills where all the rainbow lorikeets are.

Ally asked: How easily are they [rainbow lorikeets] scared? (Like are they used to people)

A: They’re pretty used to people and being handfed. I don’t because there are signs all over the Botanical Gardens explaining why that’s a very bad idea.

Kelsey M. asked: Are you thinking of making the books [Magic or Madness trilogy] into movies?

A: Typically, writers do not make their own books into movies. I don’t know anything about how to make movies so I leave it to the experts. If a movie maker wanted to make my books into movies they’d have to negotiate with my agent for the right to do so. Currently no movie maker has been given the right to make a movie of the trilogy.

Q: From your blog it sounds like you’d prefer to stay in Australia and never go back to America. Is that true?

A: I cannot answer that question on the grounds that it will make my USian friends upset with me. Er, I mean, of course not. I am very lucky that I get to spend so much time in two such wonderful countries.

Q: Why aren’t you going on the Irish castle retreat with all those other YA writers. I thought some of them were your friends?

A
: Many of them are indeed friends of mine. I’m not going because I’ve heard the food in Ireland is really bad and that the castles are cold and damp. I fear that my friends will get pneumonia and die. If they haven’t already been killed by scurvy from eating nothing but potatoes.

No, I’m not jealous. Why would you suggest that? I’m sure they meant to invite me. The email probably got lost or something . . .